In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff describes modern society (the book was written in 1966) as completely different from the past. Previously, society was marked by “religious man” — and then, many centuries later, by “economic man”, and now, in the current stage, by “psychological man.”
And this new type of individual differs from ancestors in the way he creates meaning in his life. Whereas the older generations sought meaning from without, by burdening themselves with cultural traditions and economic aspirations, the psychological man is mainly interested in maintaining a balanced mindset, he seeks meaning from within. A principal feature of psychological man is his indifference.
A society is made up of controls and releases. A cultural revolution, such as the one we are experiencing, occurs then the releases overwhelm the system of controls. The rise of Christianity was an example of such a revolution.
Near the end of the 19th century, Western culture became more remissive (a sign of an imminent cultural revolution). But unlike previous revolutions, the new culture does not have a new set of commitments.
This vacuum is filled by Freud and psychoanalysis. In short, Freud thought that psychological problems resulted from a triangular conflict between the id, ego, and super-ego. The old culture solved this tension by influencing the super-ego and crushing the id. The new culture, since it requires nothing from the individual, relaxes pressure on the super-ego, and allows the individual to be free.
But the cost of freedom was a loss of meaning. A Culture of commitments offers a consolation for the misery of living, because binding social commitments, while painful on many, holds out the promise of salvation. Christian culture offered its adherents a religious answer. Marxist culture offered its adherents an economic answer (the workers’ paradise). The psychological culture offers no mechanism for salvation, since it is individualistic. This marks the impoverishment of Western culture, according to Rieff.
While the old culture cured man’s psychological needs by giving him a communal purpose, the new culture encourages self-absorption and minimal group commitment.
Blinding loyalties are taboo. Psychological man stands for nothing, in congruence with Freud’s psychology of analysis and detachment.
Analysis impels the individual to understand but not to judge. And since there is hierarchy between our competing instincts, we must give expression to all. The ultimate purpose is to prevent the negotiations from breaking down.
Freud thought that the person who questioned the meaning and value of life was sick, since objectively, neither exist. To the person who accepts Freud’s account, analysis appears rational, saving the individual from the pointless bustle which animated the lives of his ancestors.
The old answers to the deepest questions of life are useless.
Thus, Freud created a major change in Western society.
His ideas were the anti-creed for those who think of themselves as post-religious. But Freud refused to tell them what to pursue. He was only interested in giving them the tools to structure their inner life, even if the newly discovered structure is more imprisoning than what came before.
Freud proposed sublimation as the antidote to a meaning crisis — that is, to seek redemption through art. Here, Rieff quotes Harry Sullivan, a sage among psychologists, who said, “If you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” The dynamics of culture are in the unwitting parts of it.
But in the end, Rieff concedes that there is no way of knowing whether the anti-creed of Freud is a gift or a curse — we will have to wait and see.
Jung, Reich, and Lawrence — disciples of Freud — established their own pseudo-religious systems of thought — simulations of religion. Rather than become completely anti-religious, like their predecessor, they were determined to provide “something” in place of “nothing” — but according to Rieff, all three were intellectually inferior to Freud.
Jung proposed a religious psychology, a deity through the amalgam of archetypes that exist in the collective unconscious; Reich introduced radical political activism as the means to self-fulfillment; and Lawrence proposed erotic experience as a therapy to integrate the self. Each rejects the past, but each seeks a new definition of man.
In the aftermath of the psychoanalytic movement, the anti-religions and the pseudo religions, Rieff wonders if the age old question posed by Dostoevsky “Can civilized men believe?” ought to be replaced by its inverse “Can unbelieving man be civilized?”
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.